Ursula Fernée, Restorative Justice and Victim Services Unit
Core Member, Restorative Justice: Strategies for Change
The Probation Service has increasingly recognised the role of restorative justice as a distinct approach that engages offenders, victims and the community in addressing the harm caused by crime, while balancing the respective needs of each. The establishment of a dedicated and national Restorative Justice and Victim Services Unit (RJVSU) in November 2018 was a significant milestone in a continuing journey for the Probation Service that began several years previously. The function of the Unit is to provide both (i) leadership and support for the consistent and integrated delivery of a range of restorative justice models within probation practice and (ii) a central point of contact to ensure an effective response to requests from victims, including requests for engagement in a restorative process.
Two influential developments that formed part of the backdrop to the establishment of the Unit were the commencement of the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 and the adoption of the Council of Europe Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)8 concerning restorative justice in criminal matters. The 2017 legislation makes statutory provision for the greater integration of the victims ‘voice’ and participation in the wider administration of criminal justice that includes obligations and safeguards for the delivery of restorative justice by existing services. The RJVSU provides training and guidance to Probation Officers in their engagement with the ‘victim perspective’ as part of court ordered assessment and supervision. That engagement can extend to direct work with victims and communities for the shared purpose of healing, redemption and closure. This function is now underpinned by the inclusion of victim awareness work and restorative justice as part of the overall ‘toolbox’ of interventions identified in the newly designed framework for Probation supervision (Durnescu, et al., 2020: 38).
The establishment of the Unit both anticipated and, in some ways, responded to the Council of Europe Recommendation, which encourages the wider, more consistent and innovative application of qualitative restorative justice processes across the criminal justice system. Rule 58 addresses the use of restorative justice by probation services ‘prior or concurrent to supervision and assistance, including during sentence planning work’. Increased communication with the judiciary in Ireland, through dialogue, briefing documents and participation in judicial seminars, has increased understanding of referral pathways. There is now an option for all judges in lower and higher courts to request an assessment for restorative justice in preparing a pre-sanction report that informs sentencing. Rule 59 recognises that ‘many interventions which do not involve dialogue between the victim and offender may be designed and delivered in a manner which adheres closely to restorative justice principles’. This is particularly pertinent to offending where there is no identified individual victim, but where there is a need to repair the harm done to the community. In addition to conferencing and victim-offender mediation models, the Unit supports Probation Officers to deliver a bespoke approach that recognises the social context of offending and uses a range of local community resources to engage the offender in reparative and re-integrative activities.
On a day to day basis, the activities of the RJVSU revolve around: case consultation and providing guidance to colleagues; co-working serious and complex referrals; designing and disseminating information and resources; planning and delivering training; collating and analysing data; and engaging with our partner community based organisations to co-ordinate and enhance practice. The latter engagement has been particularly useful in teasing through and meeting the (ongoing) challenges posed by the shift to virtual service delivery that arose from the pandemic.
Reflecting organisational commitments in the Victims Charter, the Unit has a specific function in acting as a central point of contact to respond, on behalf of the Probation Service, to queries from victims. The majority relate to information on the role and nature of supervision and other aspects of the criminal justice system, and the availability of support services and how these can be accessed. A small proportion of those contacts to date have looked to explore the possibility of a restorative meeting. A joint protocol between the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service provides a framework that informs the Unit’s collaboration with prison colleagues in order to provide an effective response to victim requests, including the preparation and facilitation of victim-offender dialogue where the offender is currently serving a prison sentence.
Complementing this operational work is the Unit’s strategic function in guiding and informing internal communication, business planning and policy and procedures that can further embed high quality restorative justice interventions within the core of Probation practice. Looking outwards, the Probation Service has a strong tradition of engagement with practice across European jurisdictions. As a longstanding member of the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ), our restorative justice journey has been enriched by connectivity with other members active in the areas of practice, academic study and legislative/policy development. Probation participation in the EFRJ Policy Network and Restorative Justice: Strategies for Change is a timely and welcome resource given the current visibility of restorative justice in a range of criminal justice policies and the pending legislation on community sanctions.
Probation Officers are social workers operating in a criminal justice setting. Their practice is underpinned by values and principles that are closely aligned with those of restorative justice. We should bear in mind that the roots of restorative justice in probation practice date back to Canada, 1974. In preparing pre-sanction reports for the court, a probation officer, Mark Yantzi, recommended that two young men who had committed a number of property related offences would meet with the owners to discuss the harm and possible acts of reparation. These actions acted as a catalyst to formalise practice. So, the relationship between restorative justice and probation practice is far from new. The RJVSU is committed to working, in partnership with stakeholders, agencies and communities, to facilitate and strengthen this evolving relationship further.